Outside my door, neighbours exchanged New Year wishes, and I sighed. Nothing about this New Year suggested happy, especially with my mind still cluttered with the events of Christmas 2011. I still had two days left before I returned to work, but had barely left the house since my return to Lagos the previous day. I’d spent the rest of my holiday in my hometown visiting relatives and attending a few December weddings, finding enough time a spend a day alone with myself at the Owerri bungalow to gather my thoughts. Mum had even accompanied me to a luxury spa for a day of pampering after booking a last-minute appointment, but why bother handling me like a fragile piece of china twelve years after what happened at Mex Orlando’s? Not that I didn’t appreciate the gesture—the coconut and lavender massages relieved me of any remaining tension, and I secretly cursed myself for not taking up Anna on her offer when she invited me to tag along after a Lagos spa offered free vouchers for her a glowing review on A². When had I last paid special attention to myself instead of wallowing in grief? And patients still trusted me to examine and give them medical advice?
Everything suddenly made sense. My solemn vow at Anna’s bridal splash to give men a wide berth for life. My sudden transformation from health nut to junk food junkie. My unexplained tea boycott. Mum collapsed on the carpet after Kevin and Ogechi tore her away from Mex Orlando who had already received some violent blows from Fred before Kevin and the twins pulled him away. Aunt Bernadette sat next to Mum, the latter screaming abuse at her daughter’s co-assailant. Thank goodness the children had followed their Uncle Kev into the backyard where he kept them occupied with a game of ‘catch’—none of the grown-ups could come up with a suitable reply when Lucas tugged at his mother’s arm and asked “Mummy, ‘wapist’?”
The visibly-shaken bishop cast mournful glances at the man who not long ago had charmed a whole congregation with Handel, and even his mother who accused me of lying stared at her son shamefaced. My heart went out to both his parents who had tried to raise their offspring with morals and values, but could I ignore my own pain and suffering? Mex apologised in front of my family for the part he played, but his words sounded like gibberish in my ears. At least Harrison had apologised himself, albeit via Facebook. Mex had hidden behind the choir, behind his new Christian artist persona, behind his folks, behind that scraggly facial hair… Thank goodness I hadn’t deleted Harrison’s surprise message. His words served as evidence, partially proving my side of the story and exposing Emeka Obasi aka Mex Orlando as a two-faced fake with an abundant supply of crocodile tears. The tough cult dude finally showing compassion? How interesting.
The bishop tried getting his son off the hook, stating Mex Orlando had only drugged my drink before leaving me at Jide’s mercy, and hadn’t actually raped me. Please. Right Reverend Obasi needed to read the Book of Acts—Paul never threw a single stone at Stephen, but still had the latter’s blood on his hands after he approved of the murder. Mex Orlando probably wouldn’t have come round to ours if he hadn’t signed a record deal with a Christian label. A gospel-singing bishop’s son concealing a sex scandal? The press would go crazy with that headline. The twins couldn’t believe my rapist was none other than the son-in-law of TV boss Hogan Bassey. As Creative Arts students with aspirations to forge careers in media themselves, they’d looked up to the chief as their inspiration, and had even sat in the Zebra Crossing audience during their recent Lagos holiday. Neither of them could have guessed their own sister would present another show on the same channel, or that Jideofor Titus Okoroafor, their sister’s rapist, worked there…
“You think I’m stupid because I never told anyone? What did you expect?” I yelled. My father had severely reprimanded me for keeping that secret, but seriously, what did he expect? “When we were kids, you smothered us all with your mollycoddling, me especially. Because I’m a girl? You never let me go anywhere on my own apart from Juliet’s house, you wouldn’t let me leave Shell Camp unless Fred came with me. You didn’t even want me travelling to Enugu when I won a place to study Medicine, instead you asked me to wait another year and apply again because you wanted me to remain in Port Harcourt. If it hadn’t been for Mum and the Anyanwus, I’d probably still be at home today. Even Uncle Roland called you from Makurdi to have a word with you. What exactly were you trying to protect me from?”
Mum waved her arms at me, trying to calm me before I went too far, but I hadn’t gone anywhere yet.
“Everything wrong was always my fault, everyone else could do no wrong. Remember when that awful school matron sprewed that stupid rumour about me? A twelve-year-old leaving the school to cavort with older men? Seriously? You treated me worse than dirt for days when that story broke out, not speaking to me, sucking your teeth whenever I walked into a room, banning me from stepping out of the house when Mum asked me to run errands… Did it ever occur to you there are two sides to a story? No, you treated your own child like a common whore even though I’d done nothing wrong. And now you sit there calling me stupid because I confided in a lecturer who actually listened to me instead of judging me. I was scared, I was frightened, that’s why I never approached any of you with my problems…”
“Doris…Doris,” Mum pleaded. “You know your father didn’t mean it…”
“Didn’t mean it?” I answered back. “Remember when Juliet went to her folks when that dirty paedo chased her? You saw how her father handled the situation, and pretty soon everyone saw that teacher was a total sicko. When I was ridiculed by those girls, you called me a whore…”
“I never said that…” Dad exclaimed.
“It doesn’t matter what you said, that’s exactly what you meant. Your future daughter-in-law could do no wrong, but your own daughter was scum, and you pushed me away when I could have used your support. And you call me stupid for confiding in someone who actually cared?”
“Doris, that’s enough!” Mum leaped from her chair, despite her own grief. “Stop that at once, no need to be so vindictive.”
Vindictive? “Sorry, but it’s the truth. You heard what Fred said when you asked if any of them knew about this,” I said, and the room fell silent. Fred had confessed to having read an internet forum dedicated to EU alumni, and the appalling threesome posts enraged him, but in the end he chose not to believe the trash, putting their vile posts down to jealousy. He knew his own sister. Good old Freddie Teddy.
“And by the way,” I continued. “I hear one of those rumour mongers got pregnant for a car mechanic, that’s why she withdrew from school before her WAEC exams. How many students called her out in public? Those girls didn’t exactly have the best reputation, but you believed them over your own flesh and blood. Is it any wonder I confided in someone who never jumped to conclusions? Would you have believed me if this two-faced fool…” I pointed at Mex who stood with his head bowed to the floor. “…hadn’t come here to confess? You know what…” I stormed past my bewildered family, darting my eyes up and down at the Obasis. “…believe whatever the hell you want, I don’t care. I’m done talking to you.”
My father normally would have cursed me senseless for swearing in his presence, but I couldn’t have cared less. Locking myself inside my bedroom, I found my headphones and selected a tune to block out the persistent hammering on the door. The nerve of my father, still belittling me after all these years. The song soon came to an end, but my folks still hadn’t given up.
“Doris, you can’t stay inside there forever, you’ve got to come out at some point. Why don’t you just open the door? I need to talk to you, please.” Mum had spent most of the Obasi confrontation bawling her eyes out at the thought of her daughter abused by a man whom only a few hours ago she’d regarded as husband material. “I can understand your anger, but all that pent up anger is doing you more harm than good, and the signs are all there.” No answer. “You could do this the easy way and simply open up, Doris. Or I could choose an easier way and find the spare key. Your choice.”
Mum wouldn’t quit until I proved I still breathed, at least. I turned the key in the lock and opened the door to find Mum and Dad standing outside.
“Why are you sitting in the dark, Doris?” Mum made her way inside, and Dad followed, stopping to look at me, but I stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge him.
“Doris, I have something to say.” Silence. “Better quit the attitude, girl, I’m still you’re father!” I drew out a chair from my desk and sat in front of them. “It upset me deeply when your matron repeated what those girls said, but I should have listened to you first. And Fred was right—you were never capable of that sort of behaviour—but we all know what peer pressure does to young people, that’s why I took you out of the dorm. I did what I did because I needed to protect you as a father should, but what I did was wrong. I didn’t handle the whole thing well, but I’m sorry.”
“Doris, we hate what all this anger is doing to you. Anna told us what you said at her bridal weekend about never wanting to get married, and when you changed your mind, you ended up with a man who’s secretly married. And all that junk food you consume…”
“It’s true. There’s a reason you borrowed my dress this morning, and did you honestly think I wouldn’t notice you took ice cream from the tub we were saving for Christmas?” Nothing ever got past my mother. As usual. “I hate what those EU boys did to you, and if Fred had killed the bishop’s son this afternoon, I wouldn’t have blamed him, but look around you—who’s the one really suffering? That distress is eating you up, weighing you down…”
You mean I’m eating everything up, and it’s weighing me up on the scales? “How could I possibly forget that those boys…” I argued, but Dad held up his hand.
“No crime is greater than the other, especially when everyone is affected,” said Mum. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I had a word with Bernie just before she left, and she agrees you’ve really got to move on. Some good has come out of this, though.” Mum brushed back my stray braids from my face. “You’re now the voice of Cherry Blossoms because you know exactly what they’re going through. When they speak, you listen with a different pair of ears, and when you answer, they listen to the voice of someone who’s actually been there.”
“That’s what Dr. Julius said just before I graduated.” Mum and Dad were right—I’d wallowed in bitterness for too long, but the time had come to rise and stand tall in the face of adversity. My heart-to-heart with my parents had help lift the massive weight I’d carried for years, leaving me lighter than I’d felt in ages, but could I actually forgive Jide?
I jumped off the sofa and drew the curtains back, allowing the sun rays to beam through. So what if I didn’t have a man? I had my family, my friends, my career, thousands of fans… The only person who gave up on me, apart from 99% of EU, was me. The only TLC I’d treated myself to in recent years entailed ice cream, ice cream, and even more ice cream (I could have sworn the scales sang “To be continued” the last time I weighed myself). The time had come to pick up the pieces and take out the trash, starting with my old frenemy Häagen-Dazs. Opening the fridge, I dug every tub and scooped their contents into the sink, watching the frozen dessert melt down the drain under the hot tap. Any cakes Juliet sent over in future would be shared among the nurses at work, or at Cherry Blossom. Plain rice and vegetables for dinner tonight, and in the morning I’ll go jogging round the block, I decided. My waistline plans now sorted, I turned my attention to my wardrobe, and decided there and then to squeeze a little cash from my account and go shopping for some new clothes that fit—maybe Anna could tag along with her much-needed style advice. Oh, and maybe I could get new braids… Braids? I sat in front of my vanity mirror and parted my plaits with my fingers. I’d taken down the old ones before returning to Lagos, but in my own habitat I could no longer dodge reality. A grey strand prominently stood among the thick dark brown, and years of braiding hadn’t done the front of my scalp any favours.
Fat, old, and bald. Perfect.
Enough! So what if I was a single thirty three-year-old fatty with a receding hairline? Life was life, and I could either take a cue from my favourite boyband and roll with it, or jump into my car to cruise the stores for more ice cream. Time to start afresh. Choosing the first option, I rummaged through the business cards in my wallet, selected an embossed contact in hot pink, and called the number.
“Dah-ling, you have absolutely no idea how much I’ve been dying to dig my manicure into your actual hair ever since I started tying up those plaits on The Doctors!” Femi’s distinctive lisp sounded ecstatic after I narrated my plight, and I imagined him popping open a Martini Rosé to celebrate after our conversation ended. “Dr. Zainab covers her hair with a veil, and the fabulously gorgeous Dr. Chidiebere shaves his off, so I don’t do that much backstage, but dah-ling, I’m so happy! So, what’s it gonna be? I’m thinking honey-blonde like Beyoncé, or chilli red like Rihanna…? Nay, sooo yesterday. I think bronze would suit you best, girlfriend.”
“Thanks Femi, but I have other ideas. Actually, I’ve got two jobs for you. I want you to make and style a Brazilian human hair wig for me, and maybe we’ll discuss the colour later…”
“Fantastico! Pop round, I’ll measure your head, and we’ll go through the colour chart,” Femi suggested. “And your own hair?”
“Which brings me to the second task. Cut it.”
Anna’s hair stylist sounded as if he would collapse from an untimely heart attack at any minute. “Oh. My. God. Are you trying to break my heart, Doc? Women all over the country would kill for that length, why are you trying to get rid of it?”
“I’ve been braiding for years, and now I’m balder than Channel 10, I’m not even joking. It’s for a change, but seriously, it’s just hair. It’ll grow back, but when I’m on TV I’ll wear the wig. I don’t want to distract the viewers…”
“You’ll hate me when you regret it, Doc, it’s happened before with another client, a friend who shaved it all off after her pot-bellied, flabby-assed, yellow-toothed, hard-drinking, follically challenged, fucking ugly cheating boyfriend revealed he was already married.” Join the club, girl.
“Don’t worry Femi, I won’t hate you, promise. I like how you do Anna’s highlights, and didn’t you recently cut-and-bleach Abisola Daranijo, the lady who reads BassNet News at Ten? Just don’t make me look like a black female Eminem, that’s all I ask.”
This seemed to convince the overly dramatic stylist who burst into yet another fit of laughter. “Dah-ling, don’t you worry. Just come into my salon, I’ll hook you up, and I swear on both my diamond ear studs you are going to look faaabulous!” We made arrangements to meet the following week, and after the call ended I took another look in the mirror, wondering if Femi would actually make me look like Eminem. My mobile rang. Thinking Femi had changed his mind about my appointment, I picked up the handset and the name OLIVIA flashed in front of me. Surely they didn’t want me to record another show that week?
“Hey Liv, Happy New Year. What’s up?”
“Same to you, my dear, and I’m fine. How are you? How was your Christmas? How were your family? When did you return to Lagos?”
“I’m fine, Christmas was wonderful, my family were all fine, I got back a few days ago.” Not entirely true.
“Well, I’m glad your fine, because there’s news. Are you sitting down?”
“Good news? Let me guess—the devilishly dashing Dr. Chidiebere has finally decided to tie the knot with one of his numerous sex-mad admirers, and her jealous rivals threatened to burn down Bass TV studios in revenge. Am I right?”
“Very funny, Doris. Actually, it concerns you, and you might want to start practising your poses just like you did all those years ago when you were still in EU. I keep telling you to get an agent, but you keep brushing off my advice. Good thing they came to me first, or it probably would have gone to someone else.”
“How do you feel about fronting an ad campaign for Nettol?”
“They emailed me this morning asking how they could contact you, and I thought they would have called you by now, ‘cos I gave them your number. They really want you as the new face of Nettol antiseptic, they specifically asked for you. Maybe you should get that agent,” she chuckled, and I clasped my hands over my mouth. “Come on, what do you think, now you know about it? And no, it’s not a prank… Are you still there, Doris?”
“Yes, I’m still here. Really? I don’t know what to say,” I replied after the shock wore off. “But why me? Why not some famous Nollywood actress?”
“Because they want a real-life medical professional the public can relate to, not someone who’s already had a million-and-one roles,” Olivia replied. “Someone witty, funny, and relatable, someone real. Maybe you should have a think about it, but seriously you’ll be perfect. You told us you were once a model, so you know how to work the camera.”
“But I did runways, mainly…”
“It doesn’t matter, my camera still loves you, and so will theirs. But keep it a secret for now, nothing’s set in stone yet, okay?”
“I haven’t even agreed to anything. Why not Dr. Chidiebere? The camera loves him too, although not as much as his fans. Or is it because of those scars on his arms…?”
“Chidiebere very nearly turned down the chance to become a panelist on The Doctors when I first asked him. He may come across as a cool medic on screen, but we all know he’s shy. And I’m not sure they’ve asked Zainab.”
“Wow, I really don’t know what to say…”
“Say ‘yes,’” probed Olivia.
“I can’t just say ‘yes’, I’m a doctor, I no longer model…”
“It’s not a fashion commercial, it’s an antiseptic campaign, which means they’ll run several ads over a certain length of time, and I’m sure you’ve used Nettol at some point…”
“Yes, my mother used the stuff to disinfect our bathroom when we lived in Shell Camp, and I know the twins still rely on the soap to solve their pimple problems,” I confirmed. “Well okay, I’ll think about it…”
“Yes, think about it. Nettol is a reputable international company, they’ll pay well, probably in hard dollars. Oh, and did I mention they’re willing to make a generous donation to Cherry Blossoms?”
This hadn’t occurred to me. “Are you serious?”
“I kid you not.”
“Wow. I know Remi would be pleased. Well, okay, I’ll think about it,” I concluded. After my explosive Christmas with Mum and Dad, tiny buds of joy had sprung into my life, the sun gradually shining in my horizon. Things could only get better.
And they did. Just not in the way I would have anticipated….